Cajun Steamer chugs into Cool Springs with festive NOLA cuisine 

There were so many people happily jammed into the Cajun Steamer on a Saturday afternoon before Mardi Gras that my festive reflex was to lift my blouse to get a table for five. Fortunately for everyone involved, the line moved quickly, and we were soon happily settled with giant platters of succulent oysters on the half-shell without having to shuck our tops.

Despite the (merciful) lack of nudity, the lunchtime atmosphere in the shotgun restaurant, which opened in January, was still unexpectedly vibrant for a Cool Springs strip mall. Decked with just enough Cajun kitsch to recall the spectacle of New Orleans, the restaurant never crossed the line to being a hokey theme eatery, probably because the food was so good and rang so true.

The third location of a nascent Alabama-based chain, the story-and-a-half Franklin store is built with a faux wrought-iron mezzanine recalling the signature ironwork of New Orleans. With a casual decor of beer signs, hanging fans, crab pots, condiment caddies and beads strewn around the room, not to mention a cheery soundtrack booming everything from the Allman Brothers to ABBA and the Jackson Five, Cajun Steamer hinted ever so faintly at the nonchalant efficiency of a place like Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter.

Of all the quaint touches—including a clever bar table that looks like a murky pool of water with an alligator's spiny hump poking up through the surface—the best design feature is a large plate-glass window offering a view of the kitchen and its vast stainless steel pots, from which hulking cooks trawl baskets of fiery-red steamed crawdads.

We could have been happy as clams with just raw oysters on clicking beds of ice, piles of steamed mudbugs and a few bottles of Abita beer. But a roster of Cajun staples named for Louisiana landmarks—Pontchartrain, Atchafalaya and Bourbon Street among them—lured us toward an array of sausages, stews and sandwiches that would have made Bacchus beam.

We got our first inclination that someone knew what they were doing in the kitchen when the thinly sliced fried green tomatoes arrived with their grainy coating intact, clinging to the green disks like thin pajamas rather than peeling off in thick slabs or crumbling off like wet sand. Piled with sweet caramelized onions, corn and a tangy drizzle of remoulade, the blue-crab-fried-green-tomato appetizer married the crisp fruit and sweet crabmeat in a medley of textures and temperatures that highlighted both the tomatoes and seafood without overwhelming either one.

By contrast, the crawfish enchilada appetizer drowned the subtle seafood in a heavy blanket of yellow cheese. But hog-tied shrimp combined the best of both worlds, wrapping plump sweet shrimp in salty bacon and finishing the devilish duo with a velvety sherry cream studded with tasso ham.

More unexpected were the boudin balls—like small hush puppies—whose light, crisp exterior yielded to a pearly center of seasoned rice studded with bits of smoky sausage. A tangy mustard for dipping cooled the steaming hot stuffing and provided a sharp counterpoint to the sweet, soft rice.

The Floridian at our table all but clapped his hands in glee to see a low-key bowl of smoked tuna dip surrounded by a circle of saltine-style crackers. When a member of our group—uninitiated in the tradition of smoked fish dip—derided the appetizer for being nothing more than a bowl of tuna salad, he was rebuked with, "No, man, that's how you do it in South Florida." Indeed, the light mayonnaise-based spread had an unexpected hint of smoke that distinguished it from standard-issue chicken of the sea.

The stringy slow-cooked pork and corn niblets of the cochon and grits recalled a meaty Brunswick stew, but it was upstaged by the generous bed of grits laced with glistening pork jus. Thick with cream and a hint of pepper, grits make several appearances on the menu. Pick your gritty poison, whether piled with cochon, loaded with tender jumbo shrimp and ham in the shrimp-and-grits entrée, or just a bowl on the side—but don't miss out on the shameless decadence of this Southern recipe.

Cajun Steamer's menu is rich in po'boys, the classic New Orleans sandwich that almost always disappoints when served elsewhere as a consequence of bread. When we couldn't believe the perfect crusty cloud of French loaf that cradled the fried oysters, the server explained that, in fact, it was the real deal: bread shipped from Gambino's Bakery in New Orleans. That said, not all the bread on our po'boys was the same. One time, we had a much spongier loaf with no golden crusty flakes on the exterior, and another specimen was so dry that it crumbled like white sand, all but emptying the deep-fried contents of the sandwich.

As far as the po'boy contents go, avoid the alligator. If you are a person who cannot escape the siren song of unusual proteins, if you think you owe it to your curious nature to order every conch, elk or rabbit that hops across your path, when it comes to the alligator po'boy—be it deep-fried or blackened—just say no. Sure, it tastes just like chicken, but chicken that has been cooked to inedible dryness—and then dried a little more just for good measure. I offer this advice as someone who invariably gravitates to the odd things on the menu, with infinite optimism that I will discover a new taste treat. But in this case, as I wrangled my deep fried and dessicated gator nuggets, I couldn't help but gaze longingly at my companion's sandwich, which spilled a glistening briny liquor as plump oysters burst beneath their golden coats of sandy batter.

But when the innards and the bread were firing on all cylinders, Cajun Steamer's po'boys—slathered with seedy Creole mustard—were as good as anything we've found north of Parasol's.

Not all the bayou-born staples were equally excellent. Jambalaya was an admirably chunky medley of smoked sausage and shredded chicken with dark-stained seasoned rice, but the silky, orange and bland étouffée left something—texture? color? spice?—to be desired. Another minor gripe was that there's no chicory coffee on the premises.

But that hardly hampered our enjoyment of the outstanding desserts. Most notable among the confections—including moist dark chocolate cake, fried cheesecake and a steamy bread pudding—were the beignets. Three golden-brown puffy diamonds were reassuringly crispy on the edges and burst with steam when pierced with a fork. As a play on the classic Café Du Monde pairing of beignets and coffee, the dessert arrived with a scoop of creamy dark-roast coffee ice cream drizzled with warm caramel. It more than made up for the chicory shortage.

A deceptively simple blend of laissez-faire casualness and attention to detail, Cajun Steamer far exceeded our expectations for the rustic New Orleans food to be found in a shiny new office park in Franklin. In a relatively small space, the eatery fuses a lively bar scene with family-friendly dining, new-restaurant cleanliness with old-restaurant feel for a recipe that works on Fat Tuesday or any old day of the week. If you find a long wait, you may even start fingering your buttons.

Cajun Steamer opens at 11 a.m. daily for lunch and dinner.

Email cfox@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9408.

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